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Coming Back and Getting Out…

As I move forward with my comeback from shoulder injury, I continue to feel better and increase my fitness. One thing I notice about getting a later start on training and losing a bit more fitness than typical during a winter is that I am easily motivated to train hard and grow. I see my fitness return and power numbers increase and the motivation to train increases as well.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between “wanting” to train and “having” to train. Regardless of whether you are a pro athlete, beginner or strong masters/age-grouper, there will be days that fall into the category of “having” to train.

If I go back and look at days when I wanted to train and days when I had to train, there is no comparison in the effectiveness of my workouts. The days I wanted to train were significantly more effective in making me better. Happiness, desire and motivation play key roles in the ability to perform. We all perform better and work harder and smarter when we have these things in place. Developing a routine/balance where there are more days when you want to train rather than have to train will significantly increase your training effectiveness and may be able to increase your fitness in less time. So, if you are feeling like you have to train, ask yourself: why? Think about it. See what you can correct and then try to shift into the want to mindset.

One huge variable in helping get in the wanting to train zone is the weather. Spring is like the light at the end of the tunnel: good riding weather is on its way! I am sure everyone is getting excited to get outside and enjoy this weather. I have my fingers crossed that the snow, ice and freezing temps are behind us and we can all put away our thermal jackets, balaclavas and lobster claw mittens. As the weather opens up and we get more motivated to train, I want to offer some words of wisdom…

First, start slow and grow training volume over time. Most people can take about a 10% increase (maximum) in workload a week. As soon as we get some decent temps, we get excited, triple our training volume and end up cooking ourselves in the first two weeks of spring. Take it slow and build a little each week.

The second piece of advice is to approach group rides with caution and make sure you get your skills back in order before really engaging in tight formations and fast pace lines. It takes a bit of time to get the “feel” back and it also takes other people time to get comfortable riding in groups again. Keeping the pace a bit slower, leaving more room between cyclists and not going into the red zone on your first few group rides will give you and your group a safer transition into the fast-paced excitement and benefits of group rides.

Above all, keep it safe and enjoy the ride!



Crashing Through Recovery

Many of you know that I have been recovering from a pretty good spill on the ice right before Thanksgiving. I had actually made a decision not to ride that day. In fact, I cancelled the outdoor VQ ride after driving in for the early a.m. indoor ride and assessing the ground as I walked into VQ. Then about 30 minutes before the outdoor ride was to take off, a few VQers and VQ coaches convinced me that it was OK to ride. We decided to do a non-sanctioned VQ ride with about 11 of us. To make a long story short, we headed out against my gut instinct and, sure enough…BAM! All but 2 of us fell on some black ice about 5 minutes into the ride.

Let this be a lesson to everyone out there to trust your gut instincts, because as my Uncle Tony says, “if you think it smells bad…don’t eat or drink it!”

In the 40 years that I have been riding a bike, I have fallen more times than I would like to admit. I still find it hard to believe that while on a casual outdoor ride, at just 15 mph and at the experienced age of 43, I took one of the worst falls of my life. I managed to, in the words of my surgeon, Dr. Brian Cole, “decimate” my shoulder. And to make matters worse, my knee took a hit that ruptured my PCL (posterior cruciate ligament). So, needless to say, I have had the longest break off my bike in 40 years, the worst fitness of my life and the most chronic pain I have ever experienced. Let me share…

First and foremost, like most people that have not been hurt in a while, I was not going to let a little shoulder injury keep me from staying fit and training hard. I figured that it was not that bad and I would bounce back like I have with any other injury I have had. I usually heal quickly and the longest an injury kept me away from my bike was 2 weeks MAX! I have had broken collar bones, separated shoulders, broken hands/fingers/knuckles, road rash from head to toe and even a few concussions, but none of these held me up for long and I returned to my top shape within 6 weeks of the injury. Today I find myself 12 weeks from my accident and still wondering when I will be completely healed up and can really start to ride hard and long again.

Here is a look at the last 12 weeks…

The process started with denial: “I am fine. I should be good to go in a couple of weeks.” Believe it or not, I actually felt this way post-surgery. Copious amounts of pain pills, plus the post-op endorphins, made me feel like I was healed just a few days after. I was really thinking that somehow I was different than everyone else and I estimated my progress as about 90% healed. I took my arm out of the sling thinking I no longer needed it.

Then week 2 arrived. I took the initiative to reduce the pain medication. The realization that I had been managing the pain with medication–and not my super-human healing abilities–hit me. Hard. It was so bad I could not sleep or move my shoulder at all. The fact that I had been feeling good the first 4 days after surgery and spending way too much time out of the sling, because “life” is easier without the thing, did not help at all. I had failed to realize that the pain meds coursing through my body were causing me to think I didn’t need the sling. Still I maintained my “I am fine” attitude.

Week 3: I decided to revisit the pain management plan the doctors had offered me so I could sleep and survive the serious pain during all waking hours. Thoughts of getting back on the bike started to surface. But after going to physical therapy, I realized that those first 2 weeks without the sling cost me some healing time and now I was basically back to the beginning from putting too much stress on the “unslung” joint. This is the point when I became pissed at myself because I thought I healed like Wolverine, but really I was just an idiot. I vowed to never take that damn sling off!

Weeks 4-6: PT started with Andrea from IBJI. She was not only my physical therapist, but also my voice of reason when it came to getting back on the bike. I got the green light to start some indoor cycling, but only while putting very little weight on my left side. I used an adjustable bike with the front end way up, allowing me to put more weight on my butt and less on my hands. I started riding indoors a couple times each week. It was not enjoyable. I could not ride hard and always felt sore after, sleeping terribly.

Weeks 7 and 8: These were the toughest weeks for me. Up to this point I did not feel like I was getting any better. Still in the sling, I had no range of motion, stability or strength in the shoulder. My mood started to go south for the first time during the process. Until now I had been distracted with so many things: VQ was busier than ever and we moved VQ Chicago, Thanksgiving and Christmas brought family to town, the kids were home on break plus the New Year…lots of things to keep me busy! But then the holidays were gone, my fitness was plummeting, my weight skyrocketing and my mind was starting to go a bit dark. As you know, this is not a place I visit very often.

The feeling that I was not making progress started to scare me. I realized that saying I was fine and focusing on doing everything that would make me fine, were two different things. I needed to acknowledge where I actually was and then put a plan together to get myself through it. Every time I started to think negative thoughts, I would redirect my thinking to focus on the controllable things that could help me improve, rather than the potential downsides. I would do more PT exercises, try to get better sleep, make better choices with my food and drink more water. Even if some of these individual actions are not tied directly to healing and recovery, I believe they are tied to mindset and that is a critical part of healing. This shift helped me endure some tough moments. Then, all of a sudden (or at least it seemed that way because I stopped focusing on time off the bike and started focusing on everything to get myself back on the bike), I had a breakthrough. The pain started to subside. I got the green light to take off my sling. I really started to feel much better. It seemed as though I improved 10% during the first 7 weeks and from week 7 to week 8, I improved 50% more. So, now at 60%, I felt it was time to try getting on the bike at the VQ Florida Camp and take it outside!

Weeks 8 through 10: I got out on the road a little in Florida, but inside I knew I wasn’t really ready. I figured I could improve my fitness maybe 1% by riding a bunch and risk an accident or more delayed healing (like I did those first 2 weeks) or I could be sensible and give it another couple weeks before riding outside again. As we often say at VQ: I realized the juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze.

Weeks 10 through 12: Feeling much better! And, after reflecting on this process, I can tell you that the challenge of balancing a positive attitude while also being honest and realistic is harder than I thought. I needed to realize the process is hard to manage both from the healing and pain perspectives. It is tough! Being positive is good, but acknowledging that you really are hurt is also important. I don’t think I acknowledged that at first. I tried to be so positive that I ignored the fact that I was really messed up and recovery would take time, sacrifice and pain. I get that now!

I want everyone to understand that coming back from an injury is hard. If you find yourself here, remember: it is a process. I don’t care how strong or special you think you are, we all heal at a similar rate. If you think that you can short-cut that process by staying positive, you are dead wrong. Yes, you need that positive attitude, but in combination with a realistic understanding of where you are and what you need to do to get back on your feet. The attitude will take you through the plan, but it is not the plan by itself.

Here are my take-aways:

  • It takes time–the one variable over which we have very little control.
  • It takes discipline and support.
  • It takes becoming OK with losing fitness and changing your focus for a while.
  • It takes realizing that you will get better and it will never be as fast as you think!
  • It takes being 100% truthful with yourself during the process.
  • It takes making sure you have supportive people around you. I was lucky to have people like Andrea from IBJI, Dr. Cole, my wife, Lori, and friends like Jeff Rothstein to shoot me straight and support my recovery process.

I am grateful for the folks at Rush and IBJI. They put me in a position to be back on my bike soon and ready to roll hard again. I am also thankful for all of the support of the Vision Quest team and members. Your kind words, treats and show of support were all very helpful to me. This whole experience is just one more example of how awesome the people of VQ really are.

This week I got back on my bike for an outdoor ride with friends down to Bartlett Lake. I reflected on a new motivation, appreciation and excitement to continue getting better. My cycling fitness has not changed much in the last 10 years. Sure, I may get 5% better or worse, but that’s about it. I have never taken off for this long and I think it will act as a complete reset for me. I’m resetting my appreciation for the beauty and opportunity to ride my bike, resetting my excitement to grow again as a cyclist and resetting my understanding of all people/athletes that come back from injury. It’s never easy to come back from injury, but it can create new opportunities, make us better teachers and give us a renewed gratitude for life.


Holidays Are Here!!!

I love kicking off the holiday season with Thanksgiving. It sets the stage for all things good: friends, family, food and gratitude. One of the things we love in Italian culture is to cook for people. It brings a feeling of excitement when someone eats the food you prepared for them. The feeling is incredible! Thanksgiving is all about people: those who came before us and those who are still with us. It’s the food and the people!

The other reason Thanksgiving is so special to me is that it is a time to reflect on how wonderful life is. Vision Quest has blessed me with great people. I am so thankful for each and every athlete involved with VQ (past, present and future!). The ability to be part of someone’s athletic journey is a gift that I appreciate. I also am thankful for having a great group of people with whom I work on a daily basis. The VQ team is a passionate one that wants the athlete experience to be spectacular. Their complete commitment to making VQ better inspires me every day. They are all big-time Givers. We are blessed and excited to do what we get to do each and every day.

Now, for us as athletes, there is a side to the holidays that can be tough. Many of us might feel stressed when trying to stay focused on exercise and proper diet. Understand that this is a struggle for all of us. This is a GOOD thing! Think about this: if you are able to keep your diet and exercise routine perfect over the holidays, you may be out of balance. Time spent with family and friends or helping out at local charities becomes way more important than getting all of the specific workouts in. At this time of year, eating and being social and present with others becomes way more important than that super strict carb restriction you are focusing on. This is one of those things where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The holiday season is the time to prioritize the things that mean the most. That might mean a slight gain in weight or a slight drop in fitness. That’s OK! It can be easily fixed with a couple of good weeks of training in January as long as the hole you dig is not too deep. To be honest a little extra around my belly and some loss in fitness reminds me that we all have a pretty good life! If you’re really worried about the food, maybe eat a huge salad before heading out to enjoy parties and events. That way, when the appetizers appear, you won’t feel like you want to eat the entire platter.

Looking to the new year, I am eyeing a return to normalcy once again. I’m coming off a crazy month that included a bit of a cycling spill that required surgery, Dave and his team have moved our Chicago location and we are overhauling our entire billing system. Life is busy, but you know me: I consider myself blessed to be busy!

Enjoy these next weeks. Keep your mind focused on the most important things and when you get a chance to train make the most of it. Watch your portions and make sure you smile and reflect often. Savor these moments–we never know how many we will have.

Thanks to all of you for another great year!


Functional Training

As a business owner and father of four, I have had needed to keep a pretty set routine over the last three years. I have tried to create a better home-life balance and have not been maintaining my personal functional training with the consistency I once did. This caught up with me. I have felt a gradual decline in my overall athleticism and core stability. Aches and pains have been inching in and I attribute it to decreasing overall core strength and stability. So starting on Oct 1st, I have done a 40 minute range of motion, stability based, strength class twice a week here at VQ Highland Park. Angie, from Illinois Bone and Joint Institute is our class leader.  I have been doing this class pretty consistently for last 6 weeks and I have noticed a huge difference in the way I feel both on and off the bike.

The cold weather usually makes me feel a bit more lethargic on the bike and I tend to get a little off which from switching from my road to my cross bike. The workouts are also shorter and more intense with a bigger focus on upper body engagement when riding. It’s not uncommon for the body to feel out of balance until returning to the road bike in April. Since I have started a consistent strength training routine I have felt more balanced and stronger then I have in years.

My diet, training hours, training intensity, bike and set up, sleep, and work hours have not changed much over the last 5 years. The only change I have made has been FT class with the VQ crew on Monday and Wednesday from 6:50-7:30 a.m.

This is not an over the top, hard core, pump fest, but rather a balanced based well rounded workout with a focus on range of motion, stability and rotational movements.  We do simple squats, pushups, balance exercises, coordination drills (brain busters is what Kelli Richter calls them). These things are all done at a tolerable intensity that leaves you tired but not blown to smithereens.

I think for the first time I have found a program that does not take too much time and really makes a difference in how I feel. Here is an example of how I feel better:

1. I always have to see a chiropractor or physiotherapist when I start riding longer or harder on my cross bike since my hips tend to get off kilter and I end up pedaling with one leg way more then the other, I have not had to see the chiro once this fall/ winter. My body feels perfectly balanced and my legs put out equal power.

2. Another example is when I do my VQ performance test for athletes I often have to demonstrate a walking hamstring stretch for the athletes. I am always strong on my right leg, but terrible on my left leg. Since the strength training work I can perform the stretch better on both sides and there is no difference in my ROI or my balance on either leg.

3. The last thing I will tell you is that my power on my cross bike has been the highest I have seen it in 4 years. Both my short and long range power is mid summer levels and my volume has been cut in half over these last 12 weeks.

Keep in mind, these are issues I have been dealing with for 5 years and now they are gone. I am excited about this program and think that everyone should give it a try.

Fall Fitness

Greetings from Robbie Ventura 

Fall Fitness
Most people approach their fitness at this time of year in one of three ways:

 1. Increased engagement: completely gung ho and super-focused on 2015 goals
These athletes are using this great fall weather to ramp up training on all fronts.

2. Change in engagement: pulling back on endurance engagement and reducing overall training time
These athletes seek other forms of exercise, often involving more strength and coordination. This departure from longer, more steady state exercise to a focus on more athletic and strength work makes a ton of sense to me.

3. Disengagement: unfortunate stop to all training 
Some are physically and mentally burnt out or are out of balance from a long season. Others have lost all their motivation because they have no fall or spring goals. And then there are those who are just on to other things.

At this time of year, VQ mostly sees the first two approaches. We have athletes who are so pumped for this year’s cross-season, as well as goals for next year, that they are training hard and loving this time. Many of the VQ veterans are taking a break from big volume training to focus more on healing and getting to fitness components like strength, stability and skill. We realize that getting stronger, more stable and balanced will help adapt to higher training loads in the spring; consequently, keeping us growing and helping to reduce the risk of injuries. To me, putting on a little muscle and increasing range of motion rounds us out and allows us to stay younger and more capable.

Now, whether you are going for it or winding your endurance training down a bit, this is a perfect time to get some reference points on your current fitness level. You can find this information in the lab or in the field.

  • The lab provides a great way to quantify your fitness level. I love when athletes come in to participate in a blood lactate test. We can determine so much about how they have adapted during the year and where they stand in comparison to tests taken in the past. The lab test is nice because, through interpretation, we can determine how the lower end energy systems have adapted to the training load.
  • Now, if you are short on time, you can still look at the threshold and high-end energy systems by doing field tests. Field tests are very effective in determining the higher end energy systems. You can do a field test by doing a 4-minute and 20-minute all-out test. This will give you an idea of where you are and whether you have improved the higher end systems. There is a good chance that if you have improved these systems, you probably improved the lower end systems as well.

The key is to create a consistent test that you can repeat as often as you like. At the very least you should test now, in the spring and again midsummer. This will help give some structure to your season and help you determine what is working and how your fitness changes throughout the year.

I also think these tests help determine how an athlete’s current training intensities should look. What are the current power, HR and PE zones? Believe it or not, power zones change throughout the year and recalibrating them is important. If you have never done a test, then I suggest doing one now. No matter where you are currently in your fitness quest, testing will give you valuable data to improve as efficiently as possible.

So, whether you are a VQ athlete or not, be sure to get a fitness reference point this fall. You can do a lab test that involves a lactate ramp test and will provide great data on low- and high-end energy systems to point you to your focus this off-season. If that’s not in the cards, do the 20-minute field test so we can calibrate your indoor and outdoor training intensities to maximize your training effect no matter what your engagement level is.



Cold, Cold, Cold

The key to improvement is training right! An easy way to train right is to train indoors. Just ask Andy Potts who spoke to all the VQers a couple months ago. Andy is one of the most talented and grounded athletes I have met in the endurance world in a long time. He spoke to us from the heart and his passion and charisma were contagious. I think everyone who left the “Andy Potts Night” was motivated, excited and happy to be part of the endurance community. He spoke at length on the value of training indoors and how he could never get as good as he is by just training outside. He talked about the value of controlling load and increasing the work-to-rest ratio systematically, as well as the benefits of a controlled environment. After seeing the most recent FTP test results at VQ, I agree with him 100%. I have witnessed bigger improvements in power output by VQers this year than in any other year in the history of our program.

Now as we continue to refine protocols and improve our product, I reflect on the idea that people have been forced to ride inside more this winter and because of that we have been able to control the intensity and thus make bigger gains than would have been made outdoors. That is a silver lining to the big cloud of winter that has been shadowing us so persistently this year. Three cheers for getting stronger indoors!

There comes a point though, when we all feel like enough is enough and we need to get outside. When I get to this point I am willing to give up some improvement to get out for a nice long sunny ride and soak in all the outdoors has to offer. I was so fired up to get those great camp miles in Arizona–and now it is on to Base Camp in May! The sun will be shining and we will feel the awesome effects of all that indoor training. We were able to get outside a few weekends ago at the Barry-Roubaix. The event was a huge success for VQ with over 40 athletes taking the start. The overall consensus at day’s end was that it was one of the hardest, longest 60-mile days ever, but also one of the most rewarding! The event was well run and the support amongst competitors was unlike any bike race I have ever done. Supporting and encouraging one another openly is a sign to me that our sport is evolving in a positive way. The new energy from riding outside together was incredible and I hope the vibe at Barry-Roubaix continues to spread to all aspects of bike racing.

In closing, I will say that we need to find the good in every situation–it’s the silver lining in what our lives bring to us. The weather has been a challenge, but it brought the biggest improvements in VQ’s history. The road conditions, temperature and travel time to Barry-Roubaix were challenges, but the satisfaction of finishing, time spent with friends and rising to the challenge were very positive things that came out of that event. When gray clouds roll in, it is important to keep your goals challenging and your mindset positive in order to find the silver lining. Both of these things together make a great combination and can be influenced by people around you. Surround yourself with silver lining-seekers and you will find yourself wanting to smile more!



Winter Blues…Group Training Keeps the Blues Away

 When I come into VQ Highland Park on a Saturday, from freezing temperatures outside, and witness over 120 smiling athletes training hard on the trainers throughout the morning, it lifts my spirits and confirms how important group training is at this time of year. The cold, snowy weather we have experienced this winter has been the worst I have seen in recent history. This weather has proven to bring down our morale and excitement for life significantly. I believe what we do at VQ really helps many of us from losing motivation and happiness during these tough winter months. Exercise, in general, is so important to staying positive during these short, cold days. This is true for the VQ athletes as well as for the VQ coaches and instructors. After speaking with many in the latter group about what they find motivating, they unanimously said, “the smiles and passion of the VQ athletes”. I could not agree more with the VQ instructor crew.

For those of you reading this who are not VQers, I encourage you to find a group of athletes to train with who are motivated, supportive and friendly. A good group can really help keep you fired up, not only for exercise, but for being healthy and happy overall. A positive group training environment can be a “game changer” when the gray winter blues start getting the best of our moods.

Things to look for in finding a good training group:

  1. Good balance of life–find a group that is not “over-the-top-serious” about competition, but moreover wants to be efficient with training and focuses on the journey, not the finish line.
  2. Members need to smile a lot and be supportive of you no matter what your level or goals might be.
  3. Reliability–if they are on time, reliable and consistent, you will have a much easier time showing up…even when you don’t feel like it.

I would suggest trying out a few indoor training groups and settling on the one that makes sense logistically, financially and feels right in your gut! The class times and location of the studio should make sense so you don’t spend all your training time driving to and from a facility.

If you find yourself getting blue this winter you may want to think about finding some training buddies, cranking some good music and praying for spring!